Black Sails, Season 1: Episode 4 – “IV.”
Written by Brad Caleb Kane
Directed by Sam Miller
Airs Saturday nights at 9 on Starz
We’re now at the halfway point of Black Sails‘ freshman season, and while certain characters and stories need better treatment, “IV.” is a great bounce-back episode in which the secondary figures of the series get to shine. With genre shows, it’s not uncommon to see relatively uninteresting main characters (The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes has been receiving a lot of fair criticism regarding his central position in that series). In the case of Black Sails, it’s not that Flint, Eleanor and Vane are too boring – it’s just that the characters at their sides are more interesting right now. Brad Kane manages to take Gates, Billy, Jack and Scott and give us a reason to care about their problems to some degree.
Vane spends much of “IV.” in an opium-induced haze where he keeps seeing the image of a large man looking at him from afar. There’s a stab taken to make his relationship with Eleanor more endearing, but this is probably one of the threads that Black Sails is going to have to abandon if it wants to get any use out of either of these characters. Jack, however, has two great moments that show how difficult it is for him to keep the metaphorical ship afloat. His visit with Vane comes off much like how a parent scolding an unresponsive child might. Later, he and Anne have a run-in with a pirate pimp that reveals how Jack is almost always in practicality mode. While Anne sees the moral problems in Max’s situation, Jack sees the cold, true usefulness. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but heavier is the crutch that the king leans on. Jack’s role as Vane’s crutch is a thankless one, but it’s one that he embraces nonetheless. Sooner or later, we might expect him to see some kind of reward for suffering through all this frustration, and – most likely – that reward will go to Vane or will be experienced through Vane. Even though that’s a pretty rough bargain, that dynamic is a familiar and effective one that gives the viewer someone to root for.
So, too, can the viewer empathize with Gates and Billy, who keep the infrastructure of Flint’s crew intact. There’s conflict there in how Billy admits to Gates that he’s scared of Flint, so there’s no telling how long allegiances will hold up, but as of right now, there are the two characters doing most of the dirty work. Tom Hopper’s Billy shows off his inherent leadership talent in “IV.” (and some pretty intimidating biceps) while Gates tries to help him and ease his troubled mind. As with Vane, Flint’s backstory gets more development in this episode regarding Ms. Barlow’s complicated circumstances, but its Billy and Gates who command the beginning of the episode and end up being the ones you want to follow around more.
In fitting with these trends, Mr. Scott dominates all of the Guthrie-based scenes. Both Guthries, actually, are a bit lost in this storm of stories, but the conflict that Scott faces is much more easy to get on board with. Though not a lot of time has been spent on his relationship with Eleanor, the history and respect shared between them is fairly visible, so when Eleanor decides to not include Scott in her machinations, his reaction is understandable and worth our sympathy. What’s better than how Kane makes us feel for Scott is how he also gives Scott agency and individual power. When the guns that Eleanor is trying to secure get delivered, Scott intercepts them behind her back in a move of defiance and fortitude. It will be interesting to see the repercussions of this when Eleanor confronts him, especially since she’s already alienated the person closest to her.
There’s a little bit more movement in “IV.” in how the setting changes when Flint’s crew anchors on a new location. But hardly any time is spent out at sea, and even less time is spent giving us a more traditional action sequence (however, the pulleys connected to ship breaking made for a tense set-piece). So, Black Sails is still lacking that exciting punch that ought to come naturally for a show about pirates. That said, characters and story always matter more in the long run, and there’s honest improvement in “IV.” in that area. It’s not quite riveting, but a few of these characters now feel like real people with real issues, giving us more to look forward to in the second half of this season.
– Sean Colletti